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Gesture Height and Centre of Gravity

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When teaching choral conducting we generally encourage people to use a gesture space in which their ictus lands not too far above their belly-button, as this tends to facilitate a deeper-seated breath in the singers. But sometimes the physical circumstances of your performing environment necessitate a higher gesture in order for it to be seen, and the question then becomes: how do you prevent this having a negative impact on vocal production?

This post was inspired by watching a video of someone who was managing this well.

Tone Bianca Dahl talks about a conductor’s stance needing to be balanced in 3 dimensions. Left/Right is the most obvious one, and draws our attention to the need to keep the energy levels even between the halves of the body associated respectively with dominant and non-dominant hands. Front/Back also has a direct physical relationship with gravity: we can test if we are leaning too much in either direction by alternately bending our knees and standing on tiptoe. If you can do both without toppling over, your posture is well-centred.

The third dimension of balance, Top/Bottom, is more metaphorical but is the key one for today’s question. It is very easy for conductors to over-engage their upper bodies as that’s where all the obvious business goes on, but if we want our singers’ voices to be fully supported, we need our lower bodies also to be engaged.

This framework helps us think about centre of gravity: the three dimensions in combination would place this in the core, which is why this height tends to produce the most voice-friendly gestures. When we bring our gestures higher, this effectively raises the centre of gravity, so we need to find ways to counter-balance that lift so as to keep the point of balance centred.

Way to do this may include:

  1. Lower-body stability. This is always important of course, but when the upper body is adding extra instability, it asks for more attention than usual. Connect the feet to the floor well, and consider slightly widening the stance. An inch or two more between the feet than you’d usually choose can help here (don’t overdo it though or you’ll destabilise the sound – your feet still want to be basically beneath your hips).
  2. Counter-balancing the hands. At times when you only need your dominant hand for gesture, bring the other hand back down to the level of your lower core. Not only does this make a direct reconnection with the seat of the breath, it also serves to add ballast to the hand that remains in the higher position
  3. Let your arm weight help. I have written before about the way a well-integrated conducting arm will hang naturally between hand and shoulder, as it would if you had no muscles to pull it away from where gravity would place it. Whilst I still use the analogy with muppet physiology to teach this idea, I don’t think I’d use Kermit as the best model for the technique needed here, as the stuffing in his arms tends to hold them in positions that in a human conductor would entail unhelpful extraneous tension. Perhaps better to think of your arms as operated by sticks at the wrist like a muppet, but made of a very light cloth with a small weight sewn to the elbows to prevent them flapping in the breeze.

    This was the thing the conductor I was watching was doing really well. The hands were mostly level with the upper chest, but the elbows remained at all times as low as this hand position allowed, with the sense of relaxed muscles in the upper arm preventing tension or over-engagement in the shoulders. Watching him, I felt in no danger of clavicular breathing.

Talking about conducting technique at a time when, in the UK at least, we are still separated from our choirs may seem a bit disconnected from our current needs. But this specific aspect is strangely relevant to the scenario of remote rehearsals. I noted back in September how virtual rehearsals seem to have brought a lot of conducting gestures up round people’s faces, and whilst the ideal would still be to try and adjust the positioning of our devices to get a deeper-set gesture visible on-screen, it is also very useful to have some methods to off-set some of the problems generated by the medium.

I’m not sure to what extent the direct impact of conductor posture on singers’ voices obtains online as it does in live rehearsing. Certainly, the physical set-up of the singers’ own spaces probably has a greater impact on their vocal production than anything I do. But to the extent I do make a difference, I want it to be a helpful one. And even if I’m currently making no difference at all, it is good for me to practise voice-friendly technique so that when we can get back together in person I can be of maximum assistance.

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